More than 70 years ago, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov coined his now-famous “Three Laws of Robotics.” Just a few years later, neurophysiologist William Grey Walter constructed the world’s first electronic autonomous robots. Then, in 1954, George Devol patented the first programmable robot, Unimate, which finally became a reality in 1961.
Science and technology have come a long way since then.
Today, robots and automated systems clean our floors, drive our cars, run our warehouses, perform our most complicated surgeries, and so much more. That’s all due to the hard work of the engineers, programmers and other professionals who have helped to expand the field of robotics over the past few years.
And things are just getting started. By all accounts, robotics has now become a booming field. New devices and new applications hit the market on an ongoing basis. New Ph.D. programs devoted to robotics have started to graduate their first classes of students. Job boards such as Indeed, CareerBuilder and the IEEE Job Site each list hundreds if not thousands of robotics careers. Experts tell me they expect that number to practically explode over the next five to ten years.
With that in mind—and with all apologies to Asimov—here are three new robotics laws for those interested in working in the field and maybe changing the world along the way.
Law # 1: A roboticist must be multidisciplinary or prepared to work in multidisciplinary teams.
Forget the Hollywood myth (or even Asimovian fiction) of a lone scientist inventing a robot all by himself. A real robot is built by a team.
“Robotics is such a broad field,” says Dr. Robbie Mandelbaum, director of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Laboratories. “It’s so multidisciplinary that you need versatile people.”
Robotics, Mandelbaum says, require “a huge range of expertise.” You’ve got mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as several kinds of computer programming. On top of that, robotics also requires people who understand sensors, communications, power, artificial intelligence and many other technologies.
You don’t need to be an expert in all of those fields in order to be a roboticist, but you do need to be able to work with a broad team of people with various skill sets. Of course, if you do have experience with both hardware and software, that’s even better. “Getting both together makes employees extremely valuable to companies,” says Kagan Tumer, professor at Oregon State University’s School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, which recently launched a new Ph.D. program in robotics.
Mandelbaum agrees that a Ph.D. will become more important in the industry in the next few years. “I think what an advanced degree offers is an opportunity to totally immerse yourself in the field for a few years.”
For now, though, many people, regardless of degree, are coming to robotics not because they set out specifically to create robots, but because robots will allow them to solve problems in industries they were already focusing on, such as medical devices or automobiles. “It’s all up to the passion that you have,” says Tumer. He points out that this creates huge opportunities for people to either work in companies devoted to robotics or to adapt robotic technologies to a wide range of other industries.
Law # 2: A roboticist must love a challenge.
“To bring a robot to life is an enormously complex and challenging role,” says Russ Campanello, executive V.P. of human resources for iRobot, the company behind the Roomba robotic vacuum and a wide range of medical, communication, and defense and security robots.
Robots don’t exist on their own, so one of the biggest technical challenges is figure out how they interact with humans. “Humans have a mental image of how the world is,” explains Mandelbaum. “We see the world and break it up into pieces that make sense to us. It’s hard for us to program robots to do that.”
Mandelbaum says robotic technology has grown a lot in the past few years, but technical challenges still remain. “How can you trust that the robot is going to always do what you intend it to do,” he asks. Validating and verifying that a robot will always work in the way you expect it to remains important. “We tend not to have that same issue with a human because we speak the same language and share the same culture.”
In fact, one of the biggest areas of robotics research, Tumer says, involves human-robot interaction. “How a robot interacts with people is a critical part of the research that’s going to come,” he says. “Until recently, robots were really these large monolithic things that stayed on a factory floor and interacted with six specialists. Now we’re talking about self-driving cars, robots in our homes, medial robots.” These robots interact with a much broader range of people, and that means bringing in a whole new set of skills to understand the psychology of those relationships.
All of this highlights a personality type that fits into this profession. “These people are very curious, inquisitive and innovative,” says Mandelbaum. “They look at problems from a new perspective.”
Law # 3: A roboticist must be willing to fail.
Campanello builds upon that. “You have to be curious, you have to be passionate, and you have to be willing to keep building in the face of failure.” He says the iRobot offices are littered with experiments that just didn’t work out. “I think the best roboticists have failed a number of times,” he says.
In this case, failure is actually an option, and it’s not something to get worked up about. “I never hear our engineering team being frustrated,” Campanello says. “I just don’t. They revel in solving the problem more than anything else.”
The ideal roboticist, Campanello says, “is the person who likes to build things and solve problems. I think those are the components of what makes a success in the robotics industry. An idea rarely translates directly to a function the way you think it will. And especially with the complexity of robots, it’s a little bit of theory and it’s a whole lot of trial and error.”
While some might find that difficult, Campanello says others thrive on it. “If you like solving problems—and there’s a lot of us here, including myself on the human side who think solving problems is the coolest thing in the world— and if that’s your passion and that’s what lights up your life and you happen to be in a discipline of engineering, robotics would be an interesting place for you to work.”
John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSight, Scientific American, TakePart and other publications.